Sunday, July 29, 2007

NFL Questions: AFC West

Last season this division had three layers - San Diego, then you had both Denver and Kansas City on the same strata, and then somewhere far below...lower than low can go, you had Oakland...or at least their offense and their overall record. The odd thing about it all is that this division sported the best team during the regular season - the Chargers - and they fired their head coach - one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game, and replaced him with, historically, one of the worst (by account of record) active head coaches in the game. KC is in salary-cap Hell, Denver doesn't really know what it has at quarterback and has questions on defense, and just about everyone is trying to figure out what Al Davis has been thinking for the last three years.

But what is the key question for each of these franchises...

Denver Broncos - There are many questions, not the least of which revolves around the quarterback, additions and subtractions on the defense, and the development of their wide receiver corps. The obvious question is whether or not Jay Cutler shows the progress Mike Shanahan is hoping for, and it is probably the most important question given the luck that Shanahan has had in regards to developing a capable replacement for John Elway. The closest he has come has been working with a free-agent, not with any of his drafted signal-callers. If Cutler progresses the way Shanahan's previous picks at QB have, then the Broncos aren't just in for a long season - they're in for a long couple of seasons. If he can improve on last season, then the Broncos will likely make the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs - Are the Chiefs really committed to their youth movement? In a win now league, the Chiefs are going to be forced to pick between Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard. Huard was the best signal-caller that the Chiefs had last year, and likely gives the team the best chance they have to win this season, but it also means that Croyle is left holding the clipboard. Based on the little bit of playing time that Croyle got last season, it would be surprising if he actually beat out Huard for the starting spot - but seeing as he is supposed to be the future of the team, Huard might lose this contest before it starts through no fault of his own other than the fact that he wasn't the team's first day draft pick at quarterback last season.

Oakland Raiders - Is Jamarcus Russell more than a one game wonder? Throughout last season, it seemed that the consensus top pick at quarterback was Brady Quinn out of Notre Dame. Russell's name seldom...if ever...came up. He has a great bowl game, and suddenly he's the best quarterback in the draft. Other quarterbacks that this happened to include the likes of Ryan Leaf, Jim Druckenmiller, and Akili Smith. All those previous busts, like Russell, was considered a supremely talented physical specimen - if on occasion a bit rough. Russell might break the mold, but if he doesn't, then watch for the Raiders to continue wallowing in the Black Hole of Despair which they have done a fine job of building for themselves. Even if Russell is everything the Raiders are hoping him to be, it's still likely to be a long season, but the team should show improvement.

San Diego Chargers - Can Norv Turner finally produce winners in what is likely to be his last shot as a head coach? After winning a power struggle with the winningest active coach in the NFL, it is completely possible that personnel guru AJ Smith's future as a general manager rests on the shoulders of Norv Turner - the head coach with a career record of 58-82-1. Not a bet that I would have made. The logic behind his hiring was that Turner and his staff run the same playbook that Marty Shottenheimer (200-126-1, by the way) ran, and as such, it means that the players will not have to learn new assignments.

Great logic - except for the fact that Turner, as a head coach, doesn't use that playbook the
same way that Shottenheimer does, as evidenced by their records. Sure, this team is likely to make the playoffs this year - Smith has kept the core starters together, and the team doesn't have to learn a new playbook, but I'm guessing that we see this team backslide over the next couple of years. Norv could be that replacement that finally gets along with Smith - but I would be surprised seeing as no one has yet.

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